North Korean workers investigated for murder after China labor protest

A North Korean worker. (Alexander Khitrov, Courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc.)

Several North Korean workers have been repatriated and remain under investigation on possible murder charges after protests at an industrial complex in China erupted in January over unpaid wages, according to employees at one of the factories involved.

Violence broke out at a number of North Korean-run clothing plants in Jilin Province in northeast China, with workers smashing equipment and assaulting officials. Some foreign news reports alleged the North Koreans were furious after they found that long overdue wages had been diverted to a war preparation fund. 

The Japanese Yomiuri Shimbun reported that 2,000 workers in the Nanping Industrial Complex in the city of Helong participated and that a North Korean manager being held hostage was beaten to death.

Three women working at a garment company in the complex, interviewed in late March, said that six male employees were identified as having led or participated in the violence and were returned in early March to North Korea, where they remain under investigation.

“Regardless of any grievances, resorting to violence resulting in someone’s death necessitates legal consequences,” one of the workers said. 

Another said the protest erupted over “misconduct by certain officials regarding payment regulations” and that the “cadres have been investigated by the (North Korean) government and some of the unpaid wages were paid in February.”

The protest does not appear to have been against the system under which the state keeps most of their earnings. They said their contracts as skilled workers, signed by their North Korean company with the Chinese firm, are for 4,800 yuan (US$664) per month, of which they receive 540 yuan (US$74).  

But they did confirm that they and their fellow workers are less trusting. “We normally leave most of our money with the (North Korean) company while we’re in China and collect it when we return home,” one said. “But many are now sending our wages directly to our families by bank transfer, even if it means paying a fee.” 

The workers, all women, spoke on condition that their names be withheld.

The Nanping Industrial Complex is an industrial park with North Korean-run companies set up by the local government of Helong in Jilin Province, close to the border with North Korea. Until 2018, it was a garment plant with 300 workers, but it has now expanded into a complex with some 5,000 workers, 80 percent of whom are North Korean. 

Operations include semiconductor component production, electronic product assembly, metal processing, garment processing, and ceramic crafts, jointly operated and invested by Chinese and North Korean companies.

The three women have been in China since 2014. They were originally sent to Shenyang in Liaoning Province by the North Korean Military Mobilization Bureau’s garment factory. They transferred to Helong in October 2022. Most North Korean workers there were relocated from other jobs in the three northeastern three provinces of China after their contracts expired, as COVID-19 restrictions still in place prevented the despatch of workers directly from North Korea itself. 

For the first five years, their contracted salary was 7,000 yuan (968 US dollars) per month. Of this amount, they received 600 yuan (USD 83). After 2019, when the economic crisis worsened due to COVID-19, Chinese companies reduced wages. 

The women said the most challenging aspect of their overseas deployment was homesickness. They said their requests to return home have been denied due to government restrictions. Some were permitted to attend funerals and for similar reasons, but since the pandemic, even that is not possible. “It feels like we’ve been sold for foreign currency,” one of the women said.

To qualify for work in garment companies overseas, North Koreans must graduate from a two-year program in garment processing at a vocational college. They must also have at least three years of on-the-job experience. Those selected are typically between 23 and 25. Some younger candidates are graduates from a six-month vocational school and have just one year’s experience.

These skilled workers typically reach 28 to 30 by the time they complete their five-year work contracts. Some choose to extend. The contracts of the three women expired in August 2019 and were extended for two years when the pandemic struck. When their factory was closed in November 2020 due to the pandemic, they were unable to return home and essentially trapped in China for almost three years. Then, in 2022, they were able to transfer to their current garment factory in Helong.

Regarding marriage, they have different views. One said she has no interest. “My priority is making money,” she said.

“I was engaged before coming to China and I called, but I’d like to settle down soon,” said another. 

“I don’t want to get married but I will if my parents insist,” said the third worker.

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